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"The responsibilities many of these kids had to bear at young ages was shocking to me, and their strength with dealing with major life issues was truly inspiring," McNerney says.

“‘Troubled teens’ are very much still developing—not in a permanent state of misbehavior, as they are sometimes treated,’” says Kevin McNerney, a Schweitzer Fellow at Dartmouth Medical School who partnered with Second Growth to implement an education and mentoring program for adolescents struggling with substance abuse issues (some of whom were in diversion programs).

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

Substance abuse is a target for me because its negative effects on health are a mere fraction of its total devastation. While substance abuse can quickly and easily lay waste to body and mind, it is also the cause of immeasurable pain to those who are close to the casual users, the dependent, and the addicted.

Having seen or heard stories of kids raised by grandparents because both parents were deemed unfit to raise their children due to their habit, stories of wives left behind or abused by alcoholic husbands, stories of high school students driving fast into telephone poles while drunk, stories of young children going to juvenile detention centers for dealing drugs, I’ve recognized the extreme consequences of substance use.

Of equal importance, I’ve seen the slow decline that chronic substance use insidiously facilitates. There is a gradual loss of concentration, motivation, personality, and empathy.  These deficits lead to lower grades, loss of employment, divorce, and less satisfying relationships of any kind. The prevalence of substance abuse is staggering, and its consequences are often irreversible.

Irreversible consequences sounded like a smart thing to prevent—so my project is aimed at substance abuse prevention for youth.  According to the Valley News, Vermont leads the U.S. in underage alcohol use in the 12-20 age group, and New Hampshire leads in ages 18-25. There couldn’t be a better location to work on a project aimed at changing attitudes towards substance use and preventing initiation.              

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

The program I led with summer camps is called Peer Leadership Activities for Youth (PLAY). It is a program centered around recognizing personal assets, practicing refusal skills, evaluating sources of information, working as a helpful member of a team, and communicating effectively—lessons that can be applied immediately and continued throughout life. I also mentored five adolescents in diversion programs for a minimum of six weeks each, addressing topics including personal vulnerabilities, reasons for use, and the benefits of living substance free.

I hope that my project’s impact will be seen when the youth who participated in the camp programs I led, and those that I mentored, grow into productive and substance-free adults.  My hope is that they will continue to recognize and apply their talents and assets to better themselves and those around them.

A motivational poster created by the adolescents McNerney mentored.

In addition to the lessons that the PLAY program instilled in children from each of the summer camps, I also facilitated the making of 2 murals containing pro-health and anti-drug messages. The kids decided on the message they wanted to send to their peers, and then got to see the murals installed in their school and a local recreation center. On one mural, the messages had a theme of “Save the Place Around You” and included: “Cool Cats Recycle, Go Green!,” “Respect Your Body, Don’t Do Drugs!” and “We Stick Together, Stop Bullying!”  The process of creating the murals will help the messages to stay with these children, in addition to teaching them that they have a voice and can play a positive role in their community. Additionally, for other students at the school, seeing the murals every day is a great reminder of what healthy and inspired minds can create.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

I think that the most pressing health-related issue of our time has less to do with the health care system than the economic situation of a large percentage of the population.  According to a Small Area Incomes and Poverty Estimate Report in 2009, the majority of the U.S. population lives in counties that have poverty rates between 10 and 20 percent.

How do I see this relating to health? Food insecurity, lack of access to medical care, not having health insurance, fear of exercising outdoors, familial instability, prevalent substance abuse, and stressful lives lay behind an incredible array of health issues. In the U.S., those living in poverty have higher rates of obesity (women only), chronic kidney disease, poor mental health, hypertension, and diabetes, just to name a few.

How to address this issue?  Having an opinion that is far from expert, I would suggest that lowering unemployment and poverty in the U.S. needs to begin with education reform. The inequality in education and lack of upward social mobility in those who receive poor education is appalling. Social reproduction is rampant, and those at the bottom are continually let down due to a lack of resources, opportunity, and guidance.  Programs like KIPP, a network of open-enrollment college preparatory schools, have had huge success with high school and college graduation rates for students in underserved communities. Community colleges make an incredible difference as well.

A major step towards narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor will be to make more quality educational opportunities available for underserved people. Quality school systems and more community colleges in low-income areas provide opportunities for development that can strengthen communities and our nation as a whole. Education is an important area to target because it is where people learn to set goals, gain discipline, interact with others, discover what motivates them, and, importantly, learn the material. Development in so many areas happens during school, and lack of development results in unemployment, poor health, and unsatisfying lives.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

The most surprising, and encouraging, aspects of my project so far have come from my interactions with kids sent to Second Growth through diversion programs. The surprising and encouraging part is related to the strength and resilience of these adolescents, many of who have come from very difficult situations. The responsibilities many of these kids had to bear at young ages was shocking to me, and their strength with dealing with major life issues was truly inspiring. Hearing about the lives of these children taught me much about the impermanence of behavior throughout life, and also the impact that an unstable family or school setting can have. “Troubled teens” are very much still developing—not in a permanent state of misbehavior as they are sometimes treated.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and, ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?

The greatest meaning that being a Schweitzer Fellow holds for me is belonging to a group of very motivated, intelligent, and selfless people. Hearing about all of the great things that Fellows are accomplishing or have accomplished is an endless source of inspiration. It is an honor to call myself a member of such a group.

Being a Fellow for Life means always making service a part of my life. The memory of the year that I devoted 200 hours to a service project will give me confidence to put myself out there and do it again in the future. As time progresses and areas that need improvement are encountered, I will look back on my experience and remember that life’s satisfaction comes from striving to meet societal needs, not simply recognizing them.

McNerney is a New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellow. Click here to read more about the New Hampshire-Vermont Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like McNerney it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of McNerney’s efforts to prevent substance use among at-risk adolescents, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.